A former umpire and referee for the Smithton School District has been sentenced to three years in prison for failing to register as a child sex offender, while rules requiring game officials to undergo background checks are still stuck in the legislature.
Last year, school officials learned Dennis G. Cotton, who had officiated games for at least a year in the district, is a registered sex offender. Cotton, 51, was arrested in late September after an investigation by the Swansea Police Department. The St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s office charged him with one felony and four misdemeanors.
Cotton was arrested for failing to register as a sex offender, not because he hurt any children, Smithton Superintendent Susan Homes wrote in a letter to parents in September. The situation, however, was “extremely disturbing,” Homes said at the time. Cotton’s sex offender status stems from a November 2003 Arizona conviction for an offense involving a 15-year-old.
Cotton had once been a licensed Illinois High School Association official, the governing body over high school athletics in the state. Cotton’s license had lapsed, though he continued to act as a IHSA official, according to a statement from the association. The district had not hired him via the IHSA officials database. After becoming aware of the situation, the association suspended Cotton from officiating any IHSA game.
Even if the district had hired Cotton through the database, Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson said IHSA does not conduct fingerprint-based background checks on its officials, a requirement Johnson said would be “common sense.”
“We don’t want sex offenders to be umpires for our kids,” Johnson said. “You don’t even understand how this opening could be there. Why did people not think of this ahead of time? Why did it even have to come to this?”
Craig Anderson, IHSA executive director, said the association has worked with Illinois State Police to improve the vetting process.
“We have expanded our relationship with the Illinois State Police so that we can check our licensed officials against a more comprehensive criminal database, which includes those convicted of violent crimes and sex crimes,” Anderson said in a written statement.
These systematic checks include checking the status of current officials, as well as all new officials who are in the licensing process, Anderson said.
Game officials should still be required to undergo fingerprint-based background checks, the Smithton superintendent said. A group of Smithton Junior High students are working to make sure the issue does not fall by the wayside, Homes said. Earlier this month, 15 eighth grade students traveled to the state capitol to support a bill that would require background checks for IHSA officials.
This was our way of keeping alive our interest in making sure referees have background checks before they have interaction with students.
Smithton Superintendent Susan Homes
“This was our way of keeping alive our interest in making sure referees have background checks before they have interaction with students,” Homes said.
The actions come after a bill to require fingerprint-based background checks died in the House in late September. State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, sponsored the legislation.
State Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, introduced the same legislation again in December. The bill (HB0256) was assigned to the Elementary and Secondary Education: Licensing, Administration and Oversight committee in January. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday. Neither Beiser nor Costello responded immediately to calls Monday afternoon.
For now, the school superintendent said the district checks sex offender and murder registries in Illinois before hiring game officials.
“We will no longer assume that an individual with an IHSA officiating license is not on the sex offender registry,” Homes wrote in her letter to parents.
To gain access to the association’s list of certified officials, Homes’ secretary had to become a licensed referee.
“That’s another issue with the system. She had to register to be a referee (to access the list) despite the fact that she has no intention of refereeing,” Homes said. “But that gives her access to information that she needs to run the names through the sex offender database and child murders database. Those are manual checks we’re doing. There’s still no fingerprint background check, no true guarantee that folks on that list have been truly checked.”
The association describes the process to become an official this way: “You’ll need to submit an online application and, after you’ve received a rule book from the IHSA, take an online, open-book rules examination. In your first season of being licensed you’ll also need to watch an online rules presentation that will introduce you to the latest rule changes and interpretations and attend a clinic that will teach you the fundamentals of good officiating.”
Cotton was also found guilty of four misdemeanors for unlawful presence in a public park by a child sex offender for being in public parks on four different dates in August. St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said Cotton is required to be on a child sex offender registry for the rest of his life.
“His registration requirements are not an option,” Kelly said. “If they are not followed, we will prosecute.”